The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.
Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
The Three-Body Problem has been a book on my To-Read shelf for years. A highly acclaimed, Chinese Sci-Fi novel that caught the eye of even President Obama. That checks a lot of boxes for me. Having finally read the book, I come out with mixed opinions. On one hand, the worldbuilding and the science are both phenomenally written. On the other, the characters come off as flat and wooden, as if merely going through motions instead of actually interacting with the world.
Some of my favorite sci-fi novels are ones where the author really knows their science and The Three-Body Problem might just top that list. With the book mainly being told from the perspective of two well-respected Chinese academics, Liu dives hard into both the mechanics and competing philosophies behind astrophysics and electrical engineering. Numbers are quoted, calculations and the theory behind calculating the Three-Body Problem is explained in graphic detail, and at one point there’s even a research paper cited. Liu helpfully provides footnotes to explain some of the more technical terms. Granted, I have very a surface understanding of either field so I can’t speak to the accuracy, but a friend’s dad who happens to be a physics professor enjoys this series so I’ll assume the science checks out. Liu also flexes his background in computer engineering when characters, on two separate occasions, build themselves very unorthodox computing engines. All of this is included without, in my opinion, detracting from the story. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the science bits were my favorite parts.
Liu’s handles the worldbuilding and politics of this book extremely well. While this book is set mainly in the modern world, it holds a lot of cultural and historical context in the Chinese Cultural Revolution that I’m guessing most English-readers aren’t familiar with. However, the descriptions in the book and some translator’s notes provided by Ken Liu do a good job providing this context without detracting from the story. In the modern world sections, I really enjoyed the tension that builds between different factions of the CCP as the existence of aliens becomes known and what the Chinese response to these beings should be. I do wish the international community played a direct role sooner instead of only being mentioned as contributors to the global body of science, but I’m sure that gets addressed much more in the sequels.
Easily the weakest part of this book were the characters themselves. The book is read from two POVs, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie and nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao. Through the book, these characters undergo the death of loved ones, supernatural meddling of the senses, and more. Yet, I never truly felt like either of them had emotional attachment to this world. It’s a little understandable with Ye, given the trauma she undergoes during the Cultural Revolution, that her POVs would feel numb, but with Wang, I never felt like he had emotional reactions to things. Yes, the author would tell you Wang felt shocked, or confused, or surprised, but that emotion never really seemed to register to the character itself. For readers who prefer more character-driven novels, or at least prefer reading with engaging perspectives, this is not that book.
Another criticism I had was the writing. While the science and technical parts were great, the overall story felt off. Going back to the characters not emotionally interacting with the world, the tone of the story just felt wooden. I recognize this book has been translated from Chinese to English and having worked for a translation group that translated Chinese light novels to English, I understand how hard it is to capture to feel of the original text while staying true to the writing. Having also read many machine-translated, fan-driven light novel translations, I’m more than willing to forgive awkward translations. However, I asked my dad who’s read the books in Chinese about writing, and his response was, quote, “The writing is quite bad” (to recognize biases, he also didn’t like the book because he prefers his science and his sci-fi to remain separate). With that said, I’m lead to believe Ken Liu has a faithful translation and that the base material wasn’t the best to begin with.
One minor nitpick I had: This book was sold to me as, what if aliens, but China made contact first. As such, I expected aliens and China making contact first. If I read this correctly, China was arguably slow to make contact with the Tri-solar aliens. More importantly though, is that there’s actually very little aliens. This book is very very slow burn (though still engaging), and it looks more at how different groups of humans react to the existence of aliens and their invisible presence than it does the aliens themselves. That being said, the aliens do make an appearance, just very late in the book.
Overall, I rate this book a 4.5/5. I loved how unforgivingly technical Liu went with the science and how in-depth his exploration was with how humanity would react if aliens were discovered. However, the characters and the writing I found to be lacking.
/r/Fantasy 2019-2020 Bingo Squares:
- Title with 4+ words
- does one count Three-Body as 1 or 2 words
Publisher: Tor Books